Did John Locke Doom America’s Social Safety Net?

The first issue of the Journal of Civic Literacy has been published, and is available at the link. We’re pretty proud of it; it features an introductory essay from former Supreme Court Justice Souter, several academic articles, a book review by Steve Sanders, and an argument for/example of effective civics instruction by Charles Dunlap, head of Indiana’s Bar Foundation.

It also includes an article–you might even say a meditation–on America’s difficulty with the concept of the social safety net.  The thesis is that Americans have internalized John Locke’s libertarianism in a way that does not accurately reflect his philosophy, and by doing so have made it incredibly difficult to have reasonable public conversations about programs like Social Security, Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare).

Given the abysmal level of civic knowledge these days, it may seem almost fanciful to revisit Hobbes, Locke and other towering Enlightenment figures (we can hardly encourage people to reread works they’ve clearly never read or even heard of), but a careful consideration of where we come from can often illuminate how in the hell we got where we are.

Anyway, if you’re interested in a somewhat wonky deliberation on our intellectual forebears, I hope you’ll give the article–and the others in the issue– a read. (Admission/disclosure: I am a co-author of the Locke article.)

And if you want to remind yourselves what a really good Supreme Court Justice sounds like, read Justice Souter’s essay.


  1. Locke’s view of government, particularly the notion that rights are natural as opposed to manufactured, strikes me as fanciful.

  2. It’s an interesting coincidence you should write about John Locke this morning.
    In a FaceBook discussion re: the recent SCOTUS decision involving diverse opinions a religious friend devolved into the accusation that “tolerance works both ways”.
    This was a concept I spent a fair amount of time examining in a diverse & inclusive UCC Seminary I attended for a number of years. Having an inquiring mind I started searching on definitions and writings on Toleration. One of them was Locke’s letter. The language style was somewhat difficult but I read it and found it somewhat limited for todays’ issues.
    Over 4+ hours I followed a bunch of links to:
    Hans Oberdiek’s book – Tolerance: Between Forebearance and Acceptance
    Susan Mendus writings
    John Stuart Mills
    Michael J. Totten
    The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
    After all of this I decided I needed to explore the concept of CoExistence. Unfortunately, most of the work stems from the cold war, but it is evolving. Links led me to The Heller School of Social Policy and Management and The Harvard Law School’s work in Negotiation.
    Two things: I have some ideas to share with our FaceBook discussion on ‘toleration’ AND
    the realization that our public and political discourse needs to examine the topics of ‘toleration’ and a modern sense of ‘coexistence’.
    Perhaps both the Heller School and Harvard’s Law School project on Negotiation need to do some work with our Congress.

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